Many high-schoolers run out of the door as soon as the bell rings Friday afternoon, eager for the weekend and time away from school. Not Tawana Parker-Bellamy’s cast of yellow, emerald and gold. In the auditorium, they dance, sing, laugh, play and make sure they know what type of food will be provided at an upcoming cast lunch.
Newton High School’s drama club opens its rendition of the well-known and widely loved story of Dorothy and her not-so-complete friends in “The Wiz” on April 25-26.
It may seem obvious, at first, why Bellamy, first-year drama teacher at NHS, chose this production. Its urbanized retelling of the classic tale by L. Frank Baum offers a large cast and catchy songs, making way for ensemble dance numbers and a live band.
However, doing this show was a careful, calculated decision by Bellamy. According to anyone who remembers anything before this year about the theater department at NHS understands the program needs to be dramatically revamped. So Bellamy had to find a production that would easily attract the whole spectrum of both audience members and students to audition.
“Everybody knows ‘The Wiz,’” Bellamy said.
But just in case someone doesn’t, “The Wiz” is a modern version of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The story, which has been both a movie and Broadway musical, centers around Dorothy, a shy, self-sheltered kindergarten teacher who was born, raised and still lives in Harlem, New York. While running after her dog, Toto, on Thanksgiving, she is caught in a snowstorm that brings her to the marvelously mysterious Land of Oz.
She meets some friends along her way to find The Wiz – apparently the only person able to get her back home – who are all also in need of something vital missing in their life. But their pursuit is complicated by Evillene, a wicked witch from the West who is angry at Dorothy for a very specific reason. Stars such as Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Richard Pryor were in the 1978 movie.
Freshman Nyadirah Stephens plays Dorothy, who finds herself with a peculiar pair of golden shoes. Madison Valentine, a junior, plays Tinman alongside freshman Corey Mitchell as Lion. The Wiz is performed by freshman Jonte John.
Brandon Hayden, a senior, dons Michael Jackson’s role of Scarecrow. Hayden has taken five drama classes in his four years at NHS and has been in theater since he was 11, starting at church with his siblings. He said he wants to pursue a communications major in the fall when he begins at Georgia State because it will allow him to explore his interest in the “way people talk with each other,” while still being able to do theater as a hobby.
“I’ll definitely go to auditions around the city,” Hayden said.
Hayden said he is excited for people to see the show and the new beginnings it signifies.
“It’s a nice way to show the community we’re actually a civilized and talented school,” Hayden said.
“We want more students interested in drama and the arts programs,” NHS Principal John Ellenberg said. “It’s not just about math and science and technology and social studies. It’s about making well-rounded, globally competitive students.”
Most people, from students to teachers to the principal, agreed a drama program simply has not existed at NHS for quite a while. Not only is this the first musical at the high school’s new location, but it is the first major production in about six or seven years, according to Ellenberg.
Bellamy is the third drama teacher to hop on board in recent years, and high hopes seem to run all around her.
“We brought her on this year, and it was the best thing we did,” Ellenberg said.
Canden “Toran” Kelton, an NHS graduate and “Wiz” assistant director, said Bellamy cannot walk down the hall without students calling to her.
“All the kids come together because of her,” Kelton said. “The kids need it most of all. We all said, ‘who’s gonna be the person who comes in and turns the program around?’”
Bellamy’s plans for the drama program have everyone thinking she is on the right track to fulfill that hoped-for prophecy. Although this is the first musical she has put together, her students performed a one-act in the fall. She hopes to go from two shows a year to a one-act and two musicals.
One aspect of change she has incorporated, Bellamy said, is to include the whole fine arts department in the drama productions. Art teachers are creating the set. The Sizzling Sapphires are the Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City dancers. Chorus students are in the show, and the NHS Jazz Band performs the music.
“I wanted to be somewhere I can grow a program,” Bellamy said. “Sometimes it’s nice to come into something already established and just keep it going, but it’s also great to come in and totally do it new.”
Before coming to NHS, Bellamy taught in Russell County in Alabama. She had stopped teaching to do more professional theater work, but she said she eventually had to come back.
“Teaching drama is one of the hardest things,” Bellamy said. “But once you get into it, you don’t get out.”